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Gallery 1: Early Paintings

Gallery view of Michelangelo Pistoletto: From One to Many, 1956-1974 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Artworks © Michelangelo Pistoletto

Living in Turin throughout most of the period examined in this exhibition, Pistoletto was exposed to art from the age of fourteen by working with his father, a paintings restorer. In 1953 while studying with Armando Testa, founder of the foremost advertising school in Italy at the time, he was introduced to the most recent developments in European and American art. The active gallery scene in Turin also provided Pistoletto with the formative experiences of seeing the contemporary sensibilities of Lucio Fontana, Alberto Burri, Alberto Giacometti, and Francis Bacon, among others, firsthand. Prompted by his exposure to postwar art to turn to the canvas himself, Pistoletto combined painting techniques he had learned under his father's tutelage with a potent interest in defining the contemporary moment. Using the accessible subject of his own image, Pistoletto painted a series of self-portraits, such as Autoritratto (Self-Portrait) of 1956, in which he situates the influence of Art Informel (a European type of abstract painting informed by improvisation) and Abstract Expressionism in a figurative form.

After seeing the first exhibition of Francis Bacon's work in Italy at Turin's Galleria Galatea in 1958, however, Pistoletto moved toward impersonal and isolated representations, creating works in which he objectifies his features and neutralizes the background by using planes of solid color. His distillation of self-portraiture to the point of objectification was simultaneously a formal investigation into the relationship between figure and ground and a conceptual means to eradicate any spatial and temporal context. Therefore, through paintings such as Verso il presente (Toward the Present) (1961), Pistoletto worked to elude the specificity of time and to assert the feeling of a perpetual present. Continuously experimenting with the finish of his paintings—to which he applied, in some cases, boat varnish—he achieved planes of color that were both solid and reflective. In one of these surfaces, Pistoletto caught sight of his own image, unifying his reality and that of the painting in the instant of reflection—a revelation that would set the stage for the Quadri specchianti (mirror paintings) that would follow.



Gallery 2: First Quadri specchianti (Mirror Paintings)

Gallery view of Michelangelo Pistoletto: From One to Many, 1956-1974 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Artworks © Michelangelo Pistoletto

After recognizing the possibilities opened up by confronting his reflection in the highly varnished surfaces of his early paintings, Pistoletto fully realized the potential of the mirror image in his celebrated Quadri specchianti (mirror paintings), initiated in 1962. Crafted with polished steel panels, the mirror paintings project the intensity of Pistoletto's investigations outward by employing anew the Renaissance tradition of continuous space through their mirrored surfaces. However, the contrast between the stasis of his carefully composed figures or objects in the foreground and the circumstantial, haphazard, and frenetic mirror reflection of the present in the background generates space for both confrontation and interaction with the viewer, an instantaneous experience and an awareness of the passage of time.

Pistoletto's shift to the mirror paintings also generated a need for a new technical process that would provide a means to create imagery especially for the mirror. Pistoletto recruited the photographer Paolo Bressano—who had worked for Pistoletto's father to document his restoration of paintings—to shoot images of friends, family, and associates in his photography studio in Turin. Continuing his interest in stripping the figure of any personal or specific features developed in his early paintings, he utilized Bressano's objective photography style and studio backdrops to isolate his models from any particular context. With Bressano behind the camera, Pistoletto would direct the precise yet familiar poses of his friends—among them his first wife, Marzia, and their daughter, Cristina, his friend Renato Rinaldi, and the young Clino Trini Castelli—demonstrating a clear theatrical impulse. After Bressano enlarged the resulting photographs to life-size, Pistoletto traced them onto tissue paper and hand-painted them in great detail. Cutting each person or object out, Pistoletto often reconfigured or reproduced the images into carefully composed narratives that he then adhered to polished stainless steel panels, creating a highly calculated process in which photography, drawing, and painting intertwined.



Gallery 3: Plexiglass (Plexiglas) Works

Gallery view of Michelangelo Pistoletto: From One to Many, 1956-1974 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Artworks © Michelangelo Pistoletto

In 1964, Pistoletto created this group of seven works made of Plexiglas, which were first exhibited at the Galleria Sperone in Turin that year. Shown together with select Quadri specchianti (mirror paintings)—among them Autoritratto (Self-Portrait) (1963), Marzia con la bambina (Marzia with the Baby) (1964), and Lampadina (Lightbulb) (1964), on view here—Pistoletto's Plexiglas works continue his contemplation on the nature of artifice and space set forth by his mirror paintings. Whereas the mirror paintings investigate pictorial space through reflection, his Plexiglas works dwell on the relationship between simulacra, representation, and real space. The coalescence of these various levels of reality is achieved in the Plexiglas works, in part, by Pistoletto's use of photography. Adhering photographs to the clear Plexiglas panels, he reveals a tension between the materiality of the support and the conceptual presence of these mundane objects.

The transparency of the Plexiglas serves to undermine the objects' sculptural status yet also implies a direct relationship to three-dimensional space. Even a work such as Tavolino con disco e giornale (Small Table with Record and Newspaper), which the viewer can circumnavigate, emphasizes its representational qualities over its physical presence—that is, it stands as an idea of a table more than a representation of one. Through his Plexiglas series, Pistoletto radically rethinks the potential for ideas to drive art-making, stating in a text published in the catalogue for the Sperone show: "A ‘thing' is not art: but the idea expressed by the same ‘thing' may be." Pistoletto's cerebral approach to his Plexiglas works anticipates conceptual art, which would come to the fore later in the 1960s.



Gallery 4: Comizi (Demonstrations)

Gallery view of Michelangelo Pistoletto: From One to Many, 1956-1974 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Artworks © Michelangelo Pistoletto

In the years 1965 and 1966, Michelangelo Pistoletto made a series of mirror paintings exploring sociopolitical subjects. These particular works, commonly identified as the Comizi or "Demonstrations" series, were inspired by the political climate of Italy at this time. Growing social unrest had spurred demonstrations and rallies, a period of tumult echoed elsewhere with student revolts that started in France, the civil rights movement in the United States, and protests against the Vietnam War. To capture this new reality of unrest and public upheaval, Pistoletto asked his friend Renato Rinaldi—whom he had met at Armando Testa's advertising school ten years prior and who had often appeared as a subject of the early Quadri specchianti—to take photographs of rallies in the streets of Turin. Sections of Rinaldi's photographs were then reshot by Paolo Bressano, who would, at Pistoletto's direction, zoom in and isolate figures for the artist to extract and arrange on the surface of the mirror paintings.

The Demonstrations series therefore features multiple works that recombine the same figures, themes, and sensibilities. In some images, Pistoletto overtly manipulated Rinaldi's pictures: to create Vietnam (1965), for example, "Giovanni," the name of a political candidate on a parade banner, has been modified by the artist to become "Vietnam." However, despite—or perhaps even due to—Pistoletto's manipulations of imagery, the overall series does not reveal an ideological point of view. He, in fact, sidelines personal politics in favor of rendering each of these scenes as suggestive enough to evoke politically driven subjects but ambiguous enough to imply that they could be occurring anywhere or anytime. Extracting the individual from the rowdy squares and crowded streets, Pistoletto places his subjects in a new narrative in which they act out their roles away from their original context.



Gallery 5: Oggetti in meno (Minus Objects)

Gallery view of Michelangelo Pistoletto: From One to Many, 1956-1974 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Artworks © Michelangelo Pistoletto

Pistoletto's Oggetti in meno (Minus Objects) represent both a joyful celebration of singularity and creativity and a deliberate rejection of repetition and stylistic uniformity. He produced the Oggetti in meno in relatively quick succession from 1965 to 1966, a time when the aesthetics of Minimalism were quickly becoming dominant across the Atlantic in the United States. With varying mediums and meanings, the individual works embody his contingent and improvisational responses to his surroundings as a form of freeing his artistic identity. In 1966, Pistoletto stated, "[They are] not constructions, then, but liberations. I do not consider them more but less, not pluses but minuses." The manifestations of these acts of liberation are therefore strikingly diverse, as each represents a single form extracted from the totality of creative possibilities. Quadro da pranzo (Lunch Painting) (1965), for example, plays upon the Italian word quadro, which can mean both "square" and "painting," and constitutes an invitational space for eating within the artwork. Meanwhile, Scultura lignea (Wood Sculpture) (1965–66) combines a medieval wood figure with a Plexiglas encasement, implying that any attempt at comprehending the past occurs through a layer of the present.

Pistoletto subsequently staged the Oggetti in meno in his studio. The openness of the Oggetti in meno and the interactive and invitational quality of many of the works anticipated the spirit and several of the foundational aspects of the Arte Povera movement that would emerge in Italy in 1967. The Minus Objects came to exemplify a number of inventive approaches to sculpture realized with diverse and unexpected materials, the close association between object and actions that would run through the works of Arte Povera, and the resounding implication that art can exist as an embodiment of transformation and change.



Gallery 6: Luci e riflessi (Lights and Reflections)

Gallery view of Michelangelo Pistoletto: From One to Many, 1956-1974 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Artworks © Michelangelo Pistoletto

On December 22, 1967, the Galleria Sperone in Turin became, once again, the site for an artistic reflection on the boundaries between art and life in the work of Pistoletto. At the time of the opening, however, the exhibition included only one sculpture—Pietra miliare (Milestone), a roadside post that marked the center of the gallery and the moment of its making, engraved at the top with the year 1967. In concert with the Galleria Sperone show, Pistoletto distributed a manifesto to announce the exhibition and to proclaim that his studio, cleared of all forms of art, was now open to young artists who wanted to present their works. Embracing chance and collaboration, his declaration of the Open Studio provided a new forum for artists and precipitated the formation of Lo Zoo, his street theater troupe that would start performing in 1968.

While the Galleria Sperone exhibition was on view, Pistoletto took a trip to Rome, coming back accompanied by his future wife, Maria Pioppi. Upon his return to Turin, he filled the gallery with works that emphasized notions of change and contingency through the use of reflections generated by Mylar, flickering candles, and dangling lightbulbs. Unrolling a reflective sheet of Mylar against the wall, he created Riflessi sul muro (Reflections on the Wall), a work activated by the light that bounces off the Mylar to illuminate the wall behind it. The hanging electric wires of Quadro di fili elettrici (Painting of Electric Wires) transform the ground into an energy-bearing environment, while the short lives of the candles that compose Candele (Candles) shine and reflect upon their Mylar base. At the center of this gallery, the fixed point of Pietra miliare's robust form precisely marks time and bears witness to the circumstance and improvisation of the lights and reflections that surround it.



Gallery 7: Stracci (Rags)

Gallery view of Michelangelo Pistoletto: From One to Many, 1956-1974 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Artworks © Michelangelo Pistoletto

The emergence of Pistoletto's Stracci (Rags) series and his burgeoning penchant for performance were simultaneous endeavors, intertwining in 1968 on the occasion of the group exhibition Arte Povera + Azioni Povere in Amalfi. Traveling to the Arsenali dell'Antica Repubblica, where the exhibition was held, with his theater troupe, Lo Zoo, Pistoletto created an impromptu installation among some Roman ruins by dispersing rags that he had brought along to, as he states, "decorate the Roman objects . . . and in this way create my own little set design. I had arranged my own little theater." The rags, which Pistoletto had previously used to polish his mirror paintings, transcend their original function, becoming the material of art.

This gallery brings together a variety of Stracci, from the brick barricades of Muretto di stracci (Small Wall of Rags) and Monumentino (Little Monument), which create architectural interventions and environments, to the performative Orchestra di stracci (Orchestra of Rags), whose kettles intermittently disrupt the space with their assertive whistling. The iconic Venere degli stracci (Venus of the Rags) came to symbolize the Arte Povera movement, whose rough translation as "poor art" was often associated with humble materials but also referenced the avant-garde Poor Theatre developed by Jerzy Grotowski in Poland. Yet this work also contains within it the instrumental tensions explored by Pistoletto in previous series and throughout his oeuvre: the tensions between the static and the dynamic, the classical perceptions of art and beauty and the revelatory use of new materials, and the singularity of the solitary figure deployed in contrast to the multitude, composed here of rags, riotous and unkempt.



Gallery 8: Quadri specchianti (Mirror Paintings), 1966–1969

Gallery view of Michelangelo Pistoletto: From One to Many, 1956-1974 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Artworks © Michelangelo Pistoletto

Pistoletto continually expanded and elaborated on the technique for the Quadri specchianti (mirror paintings), drawing from as many sources as were available to him, including skills first learned while training at his father's art-restoration studio. In the latter half of the 1960s, the mirror paintings reached a newfound vibrancy of color. They also incorporated references to the transformations of Italian society during that period, clearly manifested in the informal look and attitudes of his subjects. Moving from the somewhat monochromatic tones of his earlier mirror paintings, the works in this gallery demonstrate a dramatic opening up of the artist's palette. Since the photography of his subjects was in black and white, Pistoletto often invented the bold colors of his models' clothing—such as the bright crimson skirt of Ragazza seduta per terra (Girl Sitting on the Floor) of 1967.

Prompted by his careful observation of the work of Renaissance masters such as Titian, Giovanni Bellini, and Piero della Francesca, Pistoletto created mirror paintings at this time by staging his subjects as tableaux vivants, poised in distilled moments whose unfolding narratives are brimming with the theatrical impulse to engage the viewer. In these works, he depicts figures in a moment of looking, watching, and staring—actions that both actively engage the infinite spaces implied by the mirror and explore the implications of the act of spectatorship. The two figures in I visitatori (The Visitors) (1968), for example, contemplate the subject of their visitation—which, revealed through reflection, is evidently the gallery itself. By commenting on the notion of spectatorship, Pistoletto draws attention to the fact that his mirror paintings demand active participation and an awareness of the here and now of their experience.



Gallery 9: Actions, Performances, and Lo Zoo

Gallery view of Michelangelo Pistoletto: From One to Many, 1956-1974 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Artworks © Michelangelo Pistoletto

Pistoletto's Open Studio in the winter of 1967–68 provided a meeting place for creative thinkers—among them poets, musicians, and artists—some of whom would join Pistoletto in forming a collaborative group that called itself Lo Zoo (The Zoo). Part street theater troupe and part traveling performance collective, Lo Zoo found its raison d'être in a casual comment of actor Carlo Colnaghi, who compared his condition as an artist to that of a caged lion. Lo Zoo sought to break free of that cage—the restrictive and isolating position of the creative mind within the traditional structure of society—by engaging in both predetermined performances and impromptu actions in theaters and galleries and on the street. Eschewing the concern for the permanence of art objects, the performances of Lo Zoo emphasized signs, gestures, set design, and music through an open structure informed by collaboration and improvisation.

The first performance of Lo Zoo, Cocapicco e vestitorito, took place at the Piper nightclub in Turin in May of 1968. In the summer of 1968, the group took to the streets of Vernazza, a village in northwestern Italy, where they performed L'Uomo ammaestrato (The Trained Man), which narrated the first encounter between a man and the world. By the end of 1968, Lo Zoo started to incorporate music, often improvised, as in Teatro baldacchino (Canopy Theater), a parade through the streets of Turin in which they were accompanied by Musica Elettronica Viva (MEV). After an extensive European tour, they set up camp in 1969 in Corniglia, near Genoa, where they enacted La ricerca dell'Uomo nero (The Research of the Minus Man), an improvisational play using Pistoletto's conception of L'Uomo nero (The Minus Man) as its point of departure.

1970 brought about the last performance of Lo Zoo, Bello e basta (Beautiful and Enough), which was performed onstage in Milan. When Lo Zoo dissolved, Pistoletto left Turin for a mountain village in San Sicario in 1972, where he would return to creating a series of mirror paintings with even more vivid and dramatic subjects.



Gallery 10: Later Quadri specchianti (Mirror Paintings)

Gallery view of Michelangelo Pistoletto: From One to Many, 1956-1974 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Artworks © Michelangelo Pistoletto

From 1969 through 1971, Pistoletto radically reconsidered his techniques used to create the mirror paintings by experimenting and ultimately adopting serigraphy, or silkscreen, in his works. Eliminating the need for the labor-intensive process of tracing and hand-painting tissue paper figures for each mirror painting, silkscreen presented a more readily reproducible medium derived directly from photography. Following 1971, Pistoletto fully transitioned into silkscreen, forsaking painting and replacing his earlier collaboration with photographer Paolo Bressano with the photographers Paolo Mussat Sartor first and then Paolo Pellion di Persano. This shift also marked an implied reconceptualizing of the mirror paintings, whose ability to replicate reality through reflection was now paralleled by the technical process of reproduction applied to obtain the images. However, Pistoletto ultimately rejected the potential for multiple reproductions through silkscreen, producing only unique works with this method. Overall, the transition to silkscreen came as a result of his abandonment of painting and a rejection of his earlier training that had prized painterly technique.

The violent gesture of abandoning the pictorial craft to replace it by a methodology of mechanical reproduction is echoed in Pistoletto's subjects of this time, which evolved alongside the growing social and political turmoil in Italy. In his imagery, he now positions the viewer increasingly as a complicit witness, victim, or prisoner of a more ferocious reality—as in Cappio (Noose) and Uomo che spara (Man Shooting), both of 1973. This period spanning from the late 1960s to the early 1980s would later be described as the Anni di piombo (Years of Lead), and brought about a force of irrational violence in Italian society that progressively obliterated the dreams of social equality and collective emancipation that had characterized the earlier part of the 1960s.

Gallery view of Michelangelo Pistoletto: From One to Many, 1956-1974 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Artworks © Michelangelo Pistoletto

In late 1974 and early 1975, Pistoletto had two solo exhibitions that would demonstrate this heightened sense of a world turned increasingly precarious—one at Sidney Janis Gallery in New York and subsequently at Galleria Gian Enzo Sperone in Rome. By that time, Pistoletto had begun to experiment with photography anew, opening the next chapter in his practice as demonstrated by his Autoritratto di stelle (Self-Portrait of Stars) of 1973, a work whose subject manifestly stands for the passage from one to many—the silhouette of the artist is opened to the universe. Pistoletto continued to develop these ideas, first rehearsed with Lo Zoo, fully embracing a collaborative practice in his founding of Cittadellarte, a laboratory for creative thinking in Biella, Italy, in 1998.

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